LOUIS APOL ON NOVA ZEMBLA at Panorama Mesdag in The Hague

Louis Apol’s Abandoned Ship, frozen in the ice, 1880, loaned to this exhibition by Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, donated by Mrs. H. Apol, Velp and Mrs. J. Benedictus-Apol, Velp. Image courtesy Panorama Mesdag.

In for a wintry expedition? An exhibition full of ice, snow, stunning images? Visit The Hague’s Panorama Mesdag! Its new exhibition shows works created by Louis Apol, during and after a voyage to Nova Zembla in 1880.

You may be familiar with a few paintings by this artist, showing places in the Haagse Bos? Born in 1850, Apol was a member of the Hague School. But unlike other artists of this group, he specialized in winter-landscapes.

This was one of the reasons, Apol was allowed to join a Dutch scientific expedition to Nova Zembla. This voyage was not just a scientific one. It was intended to visit places related to a disastrous 16th century voyage by Dutch explorer Willem Barents.

For a few years earlier, remnants had been found – a few of which are in this exhibition- which stirred Dutch memories. Explorer Willem Barents and his crew were forced to spend an Arctic winter on Nova Zembla. Moreover, in the 19th century, countries started to explore the Arctic and North Pole. The Dutch followed in their wake.

Apol may have been a highly successful artist who volunteered for the job? The committee, part of the Royal Dutch Geological Society, only accepted him on condition he joined as crew member.

A few sketches in the exhibition show Apol performed his share of tasks on board the wooden sailing vessel Willem Barents. It set sail for its third attempt to reach Nova Zembla in June 1880. Its captain recorded, the odd crew-member took a sketchbook with him everywhere, even on duty.

Curator Suzanne Veldink pointed out, Apol was fully aware this was his one-off chance. So he filled sketchbooks trying to capture and record everything. In his spare time, he would paint in a cabin turned into a studio. The exhibition only shows a small selection of all he created during this voyage.

Drawings and paintings record life on board the small ship. There are studies of snow and ice, the gloomy landscape, towering rocks, huge icebergs, stars in clear skies, northern light and other phenomena, Arctic animals, as well as locals.

All went well, till the ship left Wrangel Island behind, sailing for Barents Bay. During an August night, unfavorable weather ensured the ship struck a reef. Apol turned this into a dramatic painting.

The ship was badly damaged. Its captain decided to break off this expedition. The crew and ship were lucky: they escaped the fate of Willem Barents and his crew in 1596-1597. Apol returned to the Netherlands, never to join another expedition.

He continued to paint wintry landscapes. In 1895, he was asked to help create something similar to what the Mesdags and their friends had done on the very spot of this museum: paint a panorama!

Apol’s panorama, located in Amsterdam and showing Nova Zembla, was very successful. Yet nothing remains, but eight black-and-white photos. The museum recreated it using these photos, in a room next the museum café.

The sketches and other works Apol created during the Nova Zembla expedition are not only art. They show an Arctic landscape which no longer exist. Museum director Minke Schat pointed out: “… [the subject] is surprisingly topical. The far-reaching consequences of climate change in the Arctic, make it impossible for today’s tourists to relive Apol’s experiences. This exhibition forces us to think about climate change; connecting past and present”.   Kate  18th October 2019

Louis Apol on Nova Zembla continues at Panorama Mesdag in The Hague until 1st March 2020